Friday, November 18, 2005

How to Speak and Why: Said

No one can speak up all the time on all the issues. But, I believe, there is a special duty to address the constituted and authorized powers of one's own society, which are accountable to its citizenry, particularly when those powers are exercised in a manifestly disproportionate and immoral war, or in a deliberate program of discrimination, repression, and collective cruelty. . . . all of us live inside national borders, we use national languages, we address (most of the time) our national communities. For an intellectual who lives in America, there is a reality to be faced, namely that our country is first of all an extremely diverse immigrant society, with fantastic resources and accomplishments, but it also contains a redoubtable set of internal inequities and external interventions that cannot be ignored. While I cannot speak for intellectuals everywhere, surely the basic point remains pertinent, with the difference that in other countries the state in question is not a global power like the U.S.

In all these instances, the intellectual meaning of a situation is arrived at by comparing the known and available facts with a norm, also known and available. This is not an easy task, since documentation, research, probings are required in order to get beyond the usually piecemeal, fragmentary and necessarily flawed way in which information is presented. But in most cases it is possible, I believe, to ascertain whether in fact a massacre was committed or an official cover-up produced. The first imperative is to find out what occured and then why, not as isolated events but as part of an unfolding history whose broad contours include one's own nation as an actor. The incoherence of the standard foreign policy analysis performed by apologists, strategists and planners is that it concentrates on others as the objects of a situation, rarely on "our" involvement and what it wrought. Even more rarely is it compared to a moral norm.

The goal of speaking the truth is, in so administered a mass society as ours, mainly to project a better state of affairs and one that corresponds more closely to a set of moral principles -- peace, reconciliation, abatement of suffering -- applied to the known facts. This has been called abduction by the American pragmatist philosopher C.S. Peirce, and has been used effectively by the celebrated contemporary intellectual Noam Chomsky (in Language & Mind, 1972). Certainly in writing and speaking, one's aim is not to show everyone how right one is but rather to induce a change in the moral climate whereby aggression is seen as such, the unjust punishment of peoples or individuals is either prevented or given up, the recognition of rights and democratic freedoms is established as a norm for everyone, not invidiously for a select few. . . .

Nothing in my view is more reprehensible than those habits of mind in the intellectual that induce avoidance, that characteristic turning away from a difficult and principled position which you know to be the right one, but which you decide not to take. You do not want to appear too political; you are afraid of seeming too controversial; you need the approval of a boss or an authority figure; you want to keep a reputation for being balanced, objective, moderate; your hope is to be asked back, to consult, to be on a board or prestigious committee, and so to remain within the responsible mainstream . . .

For an intellectual these habits of mind are corrupting par excellence. . . .

--Excerpt from the late Edward Said's chapter, "Speaking Truth to Power" in Representations of the Intellectual pp. 98-100.


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